Category Archives: Bible study

10 lessons on having confidence in our leaders

Yesterday I read this verse in Hebrews whilst studying for a sermon I am writing at the moment on Jesus’ public humiliation before his crucifixion: “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority because they kept watch over you as those who must give an account” (Hebrews 13v17).

Over the last 25 years, I have served as both a person-in-the-pew and in church leadership at four churches. I have also had many conversations with people who had little if any confidence in their church leaders. I admit that I have not always followed this instruction, so I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone. Here are 10 lessons that hit me afresh when I read this verse:

  1. Leaders will shape the DNA of a church, company or organisation whether they realise it or not, as will our attitude to them leading us (for better or worse)
  2. Having confidence in our leaders is not something that comes naturally to most people, it will normally require a change in heart attitude on our part
  3. It is a command of scripture, so we would do well to obey it and will find a blessing as a result
  4. Submitting doesn’t mean we will always (or often) agree, but it does mean supporting them by our words and attitude as far as is biblically possible
  5. Our leaders will make mistakes, we should get used to it. Sometimes they will recognise these mistakes (publically or privately), sometimes they will not. This verse is not conditional on our leaders admitting their mistakes.
  6. Complaining and moaning to others does not resolve anything (it only hardens our heart), be courageous enough to gently address unbiblical actions or attitudes face to face, or cover over with love and be silent.
  7. If we think the best, hope for the best and act for the best we will make their lives a lot easier and our own minds a lot more contented
  8. Other passages make it clear leaders do not have unquestioned authority, be clear what areas really constitute disqualification from leadership and which don’t (see 1 Timothy chapter 1 & 6, 2 Timothy 2 & 3).
  9. In a world where leadership is constantly in the spotlight (and everyone is an expert) be gentle with your leaders, always keeping your own failings and faults at the front of your mind. They will one day have to give an account for their oversight.
  10. Forgiveness, forgetfulness and prayer for their blessing will defeat a critical and bitter spirit that is rising up in our hearts from past hurts.

Father, help us to appreciate those who give of their time, effort and gifts to lead us, often without thanks for all their sacrifices. May we be easy to lead amongst the flock, being both biblically discerning and relentlessly supportive as we all follow you. Help them as they keep watch over us to know your presence and wisdom in their lives. Amen

Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

Advice to a new preacher

I have recently been speaking with a good friend who has the opportunity to preach his first sermon. I started to think about all the things that go through my mind when I approach a passage and the pulpit. I thought I would share them with you. So, John this is for you brother!

  1. Preaching simply means to herald – like the angels at Jesus’ birth we are to deliver a message. Its not our responsibility to come up with the message, but it is our responsibility to deliver it in a way our hearers can understand.
  2. Get their attention from the first minute. If you don’t get them then you have to work harder later on. Use your opening minutes to anchor your sermon in the contemporary world. A good introduction is often the hardest part of the whole preparation and I leave it until last. If possible tie the introduction and the conclusion together with the same illustration. But don’t force it, sometimes it works other times it won’t.
  3. Delve into the passage until its message has gripped you and its truth has overwhelmed you. Begin to jot down what you are learning from God. Most of it will not be that profound, but as you work on it, true insights will start to form – make these the focus for your illustrations and application.
  4. Always give a piece of yourself in each message. Preach as Spurgeon said “as a dying man to dying men”. Let the people see that it cost you something to bring a message to them from God.
  5. Strive to be logical in order to convince the mind, but not so much that it becomes a lecture. Strive to move their hearts but not so much that it feels like manipulation. Strive to bring them to a point of confrontation with their sin, but not in a way that sets you above your hearers.
  6. Exegesis, application and passion – like salt, pepper and chilies (!), each must be mixed in the right combination to make the perfect curry. Too much application and your sermon becomes too shallow and man-centred, too little and it becomes abstract and distant. Too much exegesis and you turn your hearers into pupils, too little and you turn yourself into a dictator. Too much passion and your hearers switch off from discomfort, too little and they don’t believe that you believe what you are saying.
  7. I often feel like preparing a sermon is like giving birth (I imagine!). Sometimes it feels like you are making little progress, but persistance and prayer almost always leads to a breakthrough and the effort bears fruit (even if you have to restructure your entire message with a week to go!).
  8. Always seek to hear God’s heart for your text, not your own voice. What does that mean? Well, don’t fit your neat application into a text that it doesn’t fit. Always exegete first (understand what the passage really says), then ask yourself what that means for today. Ask the questions the people in the street are really asking – what would the guy next to me at work think of this? Would he understand it?
  9. Beware of formulas and systems – don’t copy anyone, but learn from the more experienced. No one is so good that you can copy everything or so bad that you can learn nothing.
  10. Strive to live your life ready at each moment to step into the pulpit to stand before God and his people. The cleanliness of personal godliness will bring a secret strength to your message and an obvious anointing before your hearers.
  11. Start with you and the bible only – no commentaries or study guides. Delve into the text on your own before consuling other people’s thoughts, however esteemed they may be. Your bible and prayer are the two greatest weapons in forging a sermon of fire. Other people views can be helpful but they can also distract and divert the development of your thinking.
  12. Immediately after you have preached your heart out beware of the twin devils of pride and self-pity. Give each sermon as an offering, ask God that you might not be raised up by pride or cast down by failure. Your message is a fragrant offering, offered up and then gone forever. Do not seek to hold onto it.
  13. Before you begin spend a moment in silent prayer dedicating yourself to God asking him to make you a flame of fire in his hand.

For a preacher, speaking to people on God’s behalf is the most amazing thing you can ever do – to stand before them with a message from God will demand every ounce of your effort, gifting and character. It takes years to get to the point where we understand ourselves and our calling well enough that we begin to put the pieces together in the right order. But we never stop yearning and streatching for more power, more of the Spirit, more heart-piercing application. It is the hardest task I have ever done, and the most thrilling. If this passion begins to grow in you, then even though it be as small as a grain of sand it may be the beginning of a gifting to teach. Don’t be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenge, just start and you’ll find your own rhythm of preparation and delivery.

Look forward to hearing your message!

The Garden of Life – Revelation 22

Revelation 22: The Garden of Life

The final chapter in the final book describes a wonderful scene of uninterrupted intimacy with God in the new creation. 

  1. As we come to the end of our studies in Revelation, how has studying this book blessed you over the last few months (chapter 1.3 & 22.7b)? What have you found difficult to understand? What questions to you have unresolved? 
  2. V1, how does the river of life illustrate the work of the Holy Spirit? How will our experience of the Holy Spirit be enlarged and deepened in the new creation? 
  3. What are the parallels between this chapter and the Garden of Eden? How has the tree of life changed? How does God’s role in the two gardens’ compare (Genesis 3.8a)? 
  4. V10, how does this verse compare with Daniel 12.9? What then is the connection between v10 and v11? What should be the impact of this “open prophecy” on our life (2 Peter 3.10-14)? 
  5. V15 breaks the glorious scene with a note of reality that heaven is not for all (also compare 9.21 & 21.8). How do these verses balance our tendency to emphasise the intellectual aspects of salvation more than the resulting behavioural changes? What would you say to someone who believes that everyone will be saved, in the light of these verses and others? 
  6. What is Jesus’ final encouragement to his people (v7, 12, 20)? How do we handle the fact that it has now been 2000 years since Jesus promised this (2 Peter 3.8-9)?
  7.  As we finish our studies on Revelation has this journey made you more aware of the hope of heaven or the reality of the Second Coming? In what practical ways can we deepen our expectation and anticipation of heaven as individuals and a church?

The final chapter reminds us of a love letter from a long lost relative – “I am on my way, I’m coming soon, please be ready when I arrive”. The arrival may have been a long time coming in our counting but from the other side of eternity the waiting will seem like a momentary stopover between connecting flights on the way to see our loved one.

“Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things.” Colossians 3.1-2

The City of God – Revelation 21

The battle is over, the victory is here, welcome to the celebration party! As we draw near the final scenes in John’s vision the images of battle are replaced by an epic display of the splendour and majesty of the new created order.

  1. How does the scene described in this chapter contrast with the preceding chapters? What encouragements are there here for someone who is suffering persecution for their faith?
  2. If this vision is a true, but symbolic, representation of a future created order, what is it teaching us about God, his people, the world, sin and eternity? 
  3. What do the city’s dimensions and choices of building material signify (v10-23)? How do they compare with the dimensions and choice of building material for the tabernacle in Exodus 26 & 27 and the temple in Ezekiel 40.5 – 41.26? 
  4. How does this chapter echo and amplify chapter 1.6, 22 & 23 in its description of Jesus? What have we learnt about him in the intervening chapters? 
  5. How would ancient Jewish believers have responded to this vision of a glorious Jerusalem, particularly as the temple lay in ruins when they received this letter? What building would be your symbolic restoration vision e.g. a ruined castle, an old church building or something else? 
  6. To whom does the city of God belong and what are the criteria for entrance and exclusion (v7-8, 27)? How does God provide for sinful believers to enter this pure city (2 Corinthians 5.21)?
  7. How would this glorious vision inspire the seven churches of chapters 2-3, to preserve in hard times? How would it challenge them to take the warnings in the letters seriously?

What John saw was the beginning of a new story, described thus by CS Lewis in The Last Battle:

“The term is over, the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning….for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world…had only been the cover and the title page, now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Millennium – Revelation 20

Well, its back to my old church from this week and I’m also back to producing the bible study notes for the house groups. We have missed a few chapters over the summer, so we are jumping into Revelation chapter 20:

The final scenes of the vision are about to be revealed – the enemies of God are destroyed and the dead are raised. But what does John’s vision have to say for us today – what is the message that we should hear to prepare us for this coming day?

  1. How would you describe this chapter to someone who is not a Christian? What would you tell them if they asked “how you can believe such weird fantasy?” 
  2. Honestly, are we afraid to tell people about the second coming in case they ridicule us? What would you say to a fellow Christian who struggled to have the courage to speak up? 
  3. Why do you think God paints such powerful images as this in chapter 20 – do you think they are symbolic or literal? Explain your answer. Outline the key events that occur in this chapter, the images that are used to describe them, and the significance of the numbers and symbols. 
  4. If you believe the images are symbolic, do you think that makes the reality of the events the images are symbolising any less real? Do we really believe the events described in the chapter will one day happen? If so, what practical impact does this chapter have on your daily life today? How should knowing that the father of evil will be destroyed affect our attitude to sin now? 
  5. Why do you think these verses are so divisive to Christians? What are the main things to keep in mind when discussing our different interpretations? How do we ensure that we do not make a particular interpretation more important than our Christian unity? 
  6. Read verse 15 again – how does this make you feel for those without Christ? How can we allow the reality of this verse to alter our behaviour and attitudes here and now? What should our response be to the plight of the lost (Romans 9.1-3)? 
  7. How does it make you feel to know how the story ends – “Jesus Wins”? How does this help us not to be fearful in front of an unbelieving world (see question 1)? How do bring the message that there is life after death to our secular nation in the light of verses 12-15?

Spend a few moments reading through Matthew 24.36-44 and preparing our own hearts for the final day. Pray also for those who we love that don’t yet know the great rescuer, Jesus.

Sweet and Sour

These are the latest bible study notes for the home groups at Central Baptist Church, Dundee. For more about CBC click here.

Revelation Chapter 10: Sweet & Sour (word doc available here)

From observing the six trumpets as a bystander, suddenly John is caught up to participate in the unfolding revelation. A mighty angel arrives, ready to announce the unveiling of the mystery of God regarding the consummation of human history. John is invited to take the scroll and be the one to pronounce the message to the world.

  1. From your knowledge of our studies in Revelation so far, what do you think is the symbolic significance of the various images in v1 (i.e. cloud, rainbow, sun, fiery pillars)? What effect would these amazing images of mighty angels have had on the first readers of this letter? 
  2. Jim reminded us that, like John, we are not passengers on a spiritual train, our beliefs must form our being, our doctrine our doing. Share a personal testimony with the group of how God has used your beliefs to transform your behaviour. Why do you think are our actions so powerful? What practical things could you do to serve your fellow Christians & neighbours? 
  3. In v4 John is prevented from recording the message of the 7 thunders, Jim encouraged us that this was “to remind us that what we see is not all there is to see”. Why would God hide things from us? How did Satan manipulate our natural curiosity in the Garden of Eden? How does he still tempt us to doubt God’s care & wisdom? 
  4. In his sermon Jim encouraged us to move from “observing, absorbing and now participating” – are we coasting or climbing in our spiritual journey? Do we need to renew our devotion to Jesus? Are we participating in the life of the church and reaching our community? 
  5. V9, why is God’s message both sweet and sour (Ezekiel 2.9-3.3), why can’t it just be sweet? How do we maintain a proper balance between these two aspects of the gospel in our witness as individuals and as a church? How do grow in the courage required to share a sour message to a society that doesn’t want to hear it? 
  6. What does v11 say to those who believe Christians should mind their own business and leave other religions alone? Does scripture give us a mandate to approach people from other beliefs (Matthew 28.19)? If so, how do we respect other cultures but challenge their beliefs? 
  7. Jim remarked that “the message of judgement from the lips of a true prophet” will be characterised by weeping and mourning. Are you prepared to be used as a prophet by God? Are you willing to ask God to break you so that you would feel as he feels for the sin of his people and the lost?

Spend a few moments reflecting on your own spiritual journey and the calling of Christ to a sweet and sour ministry. “For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task?” 2 Corinthians 2.15-16. May God grant us grace to strive for greater faithfulness.

Warning Sound

Revelation Chapters 8&9: Warning Sound (word doc available here)

These two chapters describe the opening of the seventh seal, and the sounding of the first six trumpets contained within.  While the four angels had been told to wait while the sealing of God’s people is undertaken in the chapter 7.2-3, the full outpouring of God’s judgement is now resumed (9.14).

  1. The opening of the seventh seal leads to silence in heaven for 30 minutes. Why do you think this happens? What is the significance of silence in the bible (Habakkuk 2.20, Zephaniah 1.7, Zechariah 2.13)?
  2. One commentator says of 8.3-5 that “the saints in persecution and tribulation are praying. But their prayer life is imperfect. It needs to be incensed with the intercession of Christ.”  What weaknesses do we feel in our prayer life? What aroma do our prayers make as they ascend to heaven?
  3. What is the relationship between the prayers of the saints (Revelation 5.8, 6.10, 8v3-4,) and the judgements of God (Revelation 8v5)? How does this connection shed light on why God allows his people to undergo suffering and injustice in this world? Do we rejoice that we are found worthy to suffer for his name when we suffer (1 Peter 4.12-14)?
  4. 8v7-12 describe terrible “unnatural” disasters. Think of some of the recent end-of-the-world disaster movies – what is the typical plot, and how are “religious” people portrayed, if at all? Why is society so obsessed with these movies? How does our understanding of science affect our interpretation of the “warning sounds” of contemporary natural disasters? What should be our response to a purely physical (i.e. geological) explanation?
  5. The fifth trumpet sees a star falling from the sky (9.1); v11 suggests that this was Satan (compare Luke 10.18). Why does God allow Satan to open the Abyss, given that this allows hosts of demonic locusts to plague the earth? How does God remain blameless, loving and righteous in using the Devil in this way? 
  6. Even after all the terrible events that have just happened to mankind, those who are left refuse to repent of their evil ways (9v20-21). Why do you think they are not willing to repent despite seeing the consequences of their rebellion first hand? How does God feel about their stubbornness (Ezekiel 33.11, Matthew 23.37)? Do we share God’s sorrow?

As we survey this catastrophic scene it is important to remember that God has ordained all these events to happen. He has set their exact order and defined their boundary. He has used all of nature, including the earth, the sea, the rivers, the sky, his own angels and even the Devil – all for his own purposes and according to his own design. What a truly awe-inspiring God, may we worship him in wonder and fear.

“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgements and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor?” Romans 11.33-34

The 144,000

Revelation Chapter 7 – The 144,000 (word doc available here)

In many ways this chapter answers the desperate cry at the end of the previous chapter (6.17) – who can stand in the day of God’s wrath? – Only those protected by his seal (v1-8). The passage forms a break in the unveiling of the 7 seals, right before the final seal is opened. The second half of the chapter (v9-17) echoes back to the universal worship of chapter 5v13 and anticipates chapter 21v1-4.

  1. Why does God choose this moment to hold back the destructive forces coming upon the earth (v1) in order to seal his people? What is the seal (Revelation 14.1, Ephesians 1.13)? What difference does the seal make to them? 
  2. If the seal is a mark of God’s Spirit, how can we know that we have received this mark (2 Corinthians 1.21-22 & Romans 8.14-16))? What does this mean for someone who believes we can never know if we are saved or not? Do you have assurance of your salvation? 
  3. In v4 John hears the number of those to be sealed. Is this number symbolic or literal? Explain your answer. Who is missing from the list of sons, and which grandson is included? Does the fact that by AD70 the ancestral records of the 12 tribes had been lost effect your interpretation? If it is symbolic, what is it symbolising and who are included in this number? 
  4. What do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe this number to represent? How would you respond to their interpretation? Compare and contrast the two groups of believers in this chapter (v4 & v9) – do you think they are the same group of the redeemed church seen from two vantage points? Why or why not? 
  5. One commentator writes that the 144,000 are “faithful believers about to enter the period of final testing”. What will the result of their faithfulness be (6.9-10, 14.1-5)? How would we feel if we were one of this number?   
  6. What do we fear most about embracing suffering for the sake of Jesus? Would we be ready to lose our homes, jobs or life, or see those that we love suffer in order to remain faithful? What encouragement does this passage have for suffering persecution today for the sake of Christ? 
  7. Another commentator states that God’s seal protects against tampering, marks ownership and certifies genuine character. If you are a Christian, how does this threefold stamp of adoption comfort you in the face of your own troubles and difficulties?

Spend a few moments meditating on the fact of God’s seal over your life, thanking him and offering our lives in adoration. Remember each other in the trials we each face and particularly those who face martyrdom today for the sake of the Lord.

The Four Horsemen

Revelation Chapter 6: The Four Horsemen (word doc available here)

In this chapter we have the opening of six seals – the arrival of four horsemen take up the first four seals, with the fifth revealing the suffering of the martyrs and the six the collapse of the created world. As we seek to understand God’s message through this chapter, we need to prepare ourselves for some hard truths and searching questions. 

  1. How would you define justice to someone who was not a Christian? Describe a time when you have sought justice for yourself or someone you love. What comfort is there in this chapter for the families of victims who desire justice for their loved ones? 
  2. Justice is like a double-edged sword – we long for it to be expressed to others, but expect to be shown leniency for ourselves. How does our skewed view of sin underpin this distortion (Matt 7.3, Romans 3.23)? What are some of the things we tell ourselves or others to justify our own actions and convince ourselves that we will be ok (Psalm 10.10-13, Psalm 94.7, 2 Peter 3.4)?
  3. If we recognise that no one is perfect, why are we so surprised when judgement arrives? What are some of the examples of past judgements upon sin in the bible? Do you think it is helpful or dangerous to try and interpret contemporary natural or personal disasters as God’s judgement? 
  4. If present day sufferings are compared by the apostle Paul to “labour pains” (Romans 8.22), what we have in this chapter is the inevitable and climatic birth of a new created order. How do the striking images in this chapter bring perspective to our present day experiences of suffering? 
  5. How would you summarise the mission of the white, red, black and pale horsemen? How does their mission fulfil the desires of the martyrs, v10? Should we wish for judgement to come upon those who have persecuted us? Explain your answer. 
  6. Do you think our lack of experience of physical persecution softens our attitude towards “the inhabitants of the earth”? How do we balance our desire for people to be saved with the desire for justice? How are these two desires combined & demonstrated in the cross (Romans 3.21-26)? 
  7. Compare the “calls” of the two groups described in this passage – v 10 and v16-17. What has brought each group to this point? How do their contrasting predicament in this chapter compare with the current day? How can we be sure that we will be among those in white robes on this day (Romans 10.9-10)? 

If the images in this chapter are haunting, then it is only so that we would be woken up from our stupor to realise that time is running out. Prayerfully read through 1 Thessalonians 5.1-6 and spend a few moments mediating on where we stand with God and if we are personally ready for this event.